From the assassination of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani to increased U.S. sanctions on Iran, tensions between the U.S. and Iran are becoming more and more volatile. Foreign policy always carries considerable weight in each election cycle, but is normally treated as completely separate and distinct from the candidates’s views and policies on domestic matters. I will push back on that conception of foreign policy, and instead propose a lens that promotes the unified nature of domestic and international policy. In doing so, I will analyze the role of Iran and U.S. imperialism in the 2020 Democratic primary and the election overall.
We will first start by analyzing the candidates’s responses to the extrajudicial assassination of Soleimani. Soleimani was killed by a U.S. drone strike while within the sovereign borders of Iraq, without the permission or notification of the Iraqi government. He was killed without adequate justification under international law, which has been admitted by President Donald Trump on multiple occasions, including at a dinner with donors at Mar-A-Lago a few weeks ago. For the purposes of legal, ethical, and diplomatic grounding, this strike was a violation of international law, a violation of U.S. law, and entirely conducted for political reasons. It is my view, and the view of many others, that the U.S. acted wrongfully, immorally, and illegally. The U.S. should be held to the same international standards of law that it wishes to impose on other nations.
With this context in mind, it is clear that the position of the Republican party, of the Trump administration, and of the president himself is that Soleimani’s murder is a decison that they not only support but would do again. The remaining major Democratic candidates for presidency had different reactions to this extrajudicial killing. Former Vice President Joe Biden’s response was clearly one of support for U.S. power. He argued that the strike was wrong, but not for any legal, ethical, or moral reasons. He did not argue that the U.S. was violating international law or destroying sovereignty. Rather, he said that the strike was wrong because it would ultimately make Iran stronger in the Middle East. His reaction is indicative of his support for continued U.S. imperialism and the stranglehold that it maintains on the Middle East. He takes little issue with the extrajudicial killing as an act. Rather, his criticism of Trump comes from the lack of subtlety with which the attack was carried out. This assassination was too explicit, too jarring. A Biden administration would not shy away from such acts, but they would be done more quietly. He is an imperialist, but an imperialist that cares about maintaining appearances.
The most strongly contrasting view was that of Senator Bernie Sanders, who responded with a sharp jab at the assassination. In an appearance on CNN, Sanders pushed back against the claim that the strike was justified because Soleimani was the leader of forces that were committing violent acts in the region. Sanders said that this same justification could easily be used to authorize the killing of many world leaders, such as Vladimir Putin, Rodrigo Duterte, and Kim Jong Un. If we are considering this as a valid justification, then the U.S. would also itself be easily marked — consider Guantanamo Bay, CIA blacksites, carpet bombing campaigns, and the use of white phosphorus in Iraq, all of which are illegal under international law and the Geneva Conventions. Sanders unconditionally criticized the killing.
While Sanders and Senator Elizabeth Warren have, on the surface, very similar domestic policies, I was personally disappointed to see the contrast in the responses to the assassination. The initial response of the Warren campaign was to condemn the act, but to first emphasize that Soleimani was “a murderer, responsible for the deaths of thousands.” This line, in particular, makes the idea — that Soleimani deserved to be murdered — the focus of her response. The statement later criticizes the strike, but this line is a full endorsement of the ideology and motivations that led to the strike in the first place. When asked whether or not the strike could be called an assassination, Warren said that it was “more important to ask why the strike happened.” This response does two things: First, it condemns the Trump administration’s actions, and it makes an appeal to international law. At the same time, it also leaves room for the same justification that Sanders critiqued earlier, namely that it comes too close to leaving the window open for future strikes under similar, yet less visceral circumstances.
Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Senator Amy Klobuchar had very similar responses to one another, filling in the space between Biden and Warren: critiquing the strike, yet mainly on grounds of aesthetics and “planning” than on anything else. Buttigieg, who served in the U.S. military, notably embraced U.S. military occupation when he was trying to advocate for a ban on assault weapons. He said that they belonged on the streets of foreign countries, but not in the U.S. Buttigieg still holds a disregard for the safety and well-being of people of color, but prefers the harm to be in a foreign country, such as Afghanistan. So long as the weapons are pointed at people from Arab, Middle Eastern, or North African backgrounds, Buttiegieg is comfortable. As a result, the candidates can be aligned on a sort of spectrum, with Biden on the furthest end, supporting complete U.S. imperial power, Klobuchar and Buttiegieg next, offering a slightly firmer critique, followed by Warren and then Bernie at the other end. It is worth noting that Sanders is not completely opposite of the imperialist wing. He has previously voted for war and military funding, which demonstrates at least some level of alignment with the continued rule of United States military power in the world.
All of the candidates, with partial exceptions for Warren and slightly stronger exceptions for Sanders, support increased sanctions on Iran. Trump has already increased sanctions on the country during his term. The existing sanctions target medicine, medical equipment, and food, which directly impact those that are lower on the socioeconomic ladder and have resulted in hundreds, if not thousands, of deaths due to lack of medical care and food rationing. Warren has not supported recent increases in sanctions, which is a plus. Bernie has called for a stop to sanctions in the past, though his position is currently ambiguous as to whether Obama-era sanctions should remain in place. As should be expected, Biden and Klobuchar are the strongest supporters of sanctions, with Buttiegeg not far behind.
In sum, as far as ‘regional stability’ is concerned, I feel it is quite clear who is and who is not capable of setting us up for a positive forward trajectory. I am Iranian American, and I do not like the current authoritarian, theocratic, right-wing government that exists in Iran. Much of my family in Iran have sided with left and far-left parties. I recognize, however, that Iran is not looking to go to war with the U.S. — no countries are. As the most powerful and most armed country in the world (we have so many nuclear weapons that the military has lost some), the threshold for “imminent threat” should be extremely high. How a candidate approaches other nations and peoples is directly reflective of how they actually intend to treat the people of this nation. Biden voted for and led the charge to go to war in Iraq and then pushed to freeze social security, Medicare, and Medicaid here in the United States. Are those two policy decisions separate from one another? I would argue not. You cannot come from a compassionate perspective or a humanity-focused perspective and at the same time dismiss and selectively ignore huge portions of the population. If we want a future that is truly just, I feel that our choices are fairly clear. We cannot afford to move further along the trail to war. I agree with Elizabeth Warren on her domestic policy, as it is very similar to that of Bernie. Her stance on foreign policy, however, especially in the Middle East, leaves much to be desired. Is Sanders’ platform perfect in that regard? Of course not, but I do feel that his campaign and movement is the most likely to strive to achieve peace.